Below, you’ll find a poem analysis of ‘When We Two Parted’ by Lord Byron.
It’s a sad one, this one. Poor Byron suffers complex feelings for years after breaking up an affair with a woman he loved due to her marriage commitments, only to hear from friends that she’s involved with another man now too — and not just any man, the Duke of Wellington, who has just defeated Napoleon in battle and is now swanning around with this same married woman that Byron loved! I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for the guy, so I really feel for him in this poem and I hope you do too. The analysis is tailored towards GCSE, IGCSE and A LEVEL students (CIE / Cambridge, Edexcel, WJEC, OCR, AQA exam boards), but it’s suitable for anyone studying the poem at any level too.
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WHEN WE TWO PARTED
When we two parted
In silence and tears,
To sever for years,
Pale grew thy cheek and cold,
Colder thy kiss;
Truly that hour foretold
Sorrow to this.
The dew of the morning
Sunk chill on my brow –
It felt like the warning
Of what I feel now.
Thy vows are all broken,
And light is thy fame;
I hear thy name spoken,
And share in its shame.
They name thee before me,
A knell in mine ear;
A shudder comes o’er me —
Why wert thou so dear?
They know not I knew thee,
Who knew thee too well —
Long, long shall I rue thee,
Too deeply to tell.
In secret we met —
In silence I grieve,
That thy heart could forget,
Thy spirit deceive.
If I should meet thee
After long years,
How should I greet thee? —
With silence and tears.
Parted — separated, went different ways, left each other
Sever — separate, cut a connection
Thy — your
Foretold — predicted, prophesied
Dew — the water drops that occur on plants in the early morning
Vows — promises
Wert thou — were you
Rue — regret terribly
The speaker says that when he and the addressee separated, it was in silence and with tears, their hearts were half broken and they were cut off from each other for years. Her cheek became cold, as did her kiss, because she was preparing to cut him off; this was a small taste of the sorrow he was to feel later. (Stanza 2) The morning dew that signalled daybreak made him feel cold, it showed that it was time for him to leave; this horrible feeling was like a warning about how he would feel now. Her promises to him are broken, and she has now become mildly famous — he hears people speaking about her and feels ashamed when he hears of her. (Stanza 3) His friends and acquaintances speak her name to him, and it sounds like a death bell in his ear every time he hears it. He shudders and wonders why he cared for her so much. They don’t know that he knows her, or that he used to know her too well (intimately, as a lover). He will regret her for a long, long time, too deeply to ever tell anyone about their affair. (Stanza 4) They used to meet in secret, and now he grieves for her alone and silently, never talking about it to anyone. He is so upset that her heart could forget him and move on, that her spirit could trick him. If he met her after all this time, how would he react? In silence, and with tears.
The speaker of the poem adopts the role of a tormented lover, but Byron provides an unusual perspective on this literary trope — usually this kind of poem explores an imbalance between lovers, suggesting one person loved the other intensely but that it was not reciprocated and they didn’t love them enough back. However, the title ‘When we two parted’ implies a mutuality to this break up — both lovers knew it wasn’t a suitable relationship and the separation was agreed upon equally. Despite this, the speaker still longs for the woman (the addressee) and so he feels compelled to write a poem that explores the sensitive complexity of his feelings.
Collective first person plural pronoun — ‘we’ — the opening line contains the phrase ‘we two parted’, but it is the only time that Byron uses this plural pronoun to refer to the speaker and addressee together.
Motifs — ‘silence and tears’ — these images are repeated at the beginning and end of the poem to create a kind of cyclical structure that summarises the speaker’s feelings towards his former lover. He is not angry, only hurt and unable to fully express himself — the memory of his lover plunges him into a kind of silent depression, similar to how he felt when the relationship ended.
Compound adjective — ‘Half broken-hearted’ — the feeling of being broken at the end of a relationship is complicated by the adverb ‘half’, which suggests torn feelings — they both agree to end their affair and yet are both reluctant to do so, they both are hurt or ‘broken-hearted’ as a result.
Semantic field of death — ‘Pale grew thy cheek’ ‘cold / Colder thy kiss’ ‘chill on my brow’- there is a sense of warmth and affection between the lovers fading as they prepare to leave each other, the woman no longer flushes or shows warmth towards the man, and her kiss no longer communicates affection. His forehead also has a ‘chill’ on the morning he decides to leave, implying sickness or fever, almost as if the death of the relationship causes a death in themselves.
Sardonic tone — at times the speaker verges on mocking the addressee, such as in the phrase ‘light is thy fame’, this is ambiguous as it could imply a compliment, that she has grown in fame and success, or that she is only lightly famous — not truly famous, just someone that is vaguely mentioned by people in passing. Byron was himself notorious and often written about in papers, he had a reputation for being daring and reckless and is sometimes credited with being the first ever celebrity that people were interested in and keen to hear news of. In this sense, he may be comparing his own fame to his former lover’s.
Metaphor — the lady’s name is ‘a knell’ to the speaker, a bell that tolls to signal death, causing him to ‘shudder’. Where he once would have felt warmth and joy at the thought of the woman, he now feels a kind of repulsion as if he associates her name with death.
Rhetorical question — ‘Why wert thou so dear?’ — the question is aimed at the speaker’s own self, he almost has a separation between logic and emotion in his soul as he can’t understand what it exactly was about the woman that made him care so much for her. The use of the past tense ‘wert’ however does imply that there’s been a change in his feelings since hearing the most recent news of her, and that she is no longer as ‘dear’ to him as she once was.
Synecdoche — ‘thy heart could forget’ ‘thy spirit deceive’ — these parts of the woman are given their own characteristics, implying that she had a contradictory character that was made up of different desires and urges, her heart, the speaker seems sure, did once love him truly but it has now forgotten or lost the emotion. Her ‘spirit’, the soul or essence of her, is presented as deceitful — untrustworthy and intentionally duplicitous. He is shocked that someone who seemed so great could have such a ‘shame’ful character and is no longer attracted as strongly as he was because he understands that she is dishonest. Despite this, the conclusion of the poem betrays the fact that he does retain feelings for her, although over time and with news of her these feelings have become even more complicated.
STRUCTURE / FORM
ABAB rhyme scheme — it is customary for love poetry to use rhyming couplets to signify harmony between couples, here Byron’s love poem has a lack of harmony through its use of alternate rhyme which oscillates back and forth rather than creating a sense of closure.
Dactylic dimeter — the metre of the poem is disrupted, but it is roughly in dactylic dimeter — three beats of stressed — unstressed — unstressed syllables per foot, two feet per line. This creates a falling rhythm that emphasises the sadness of the speaker and the disintegration of his relationship with the addressee. The imperfection of the metre also imitates the roughness and lack of perfection in their love.
Dashes — the use of dashes at the end of certain lines create a brief pause, perhaps showing the melodramatic nature of the speaker or his ‘silence’ and speechlessness as he is left not knowing how to respond to the most recent news of his former lover.
Written in 1816, many scholars believe that it is an autobiographical poem that reflects Byron’s own life, relating specifically to Lord Byron’s relationship with Lady Frances Wedderburn-Webster — a married woman with whom Byron supposedly had an affair. He had a reputation for charming women, and leaving a trail of jilted lovers wherever he travelled. However, this time it seems that Lady Frances had the upper hand, moving on from him to other affairs with other famous men. After the affair with Byron ended, Lady Frances also supposedly had a secret relationship with the Duke of Wellington; Byron heard about this and responded by writing this poem — it represents his hurt, surprise and anger at her ability to move on, as well as suggesting that their romance was less special than he thought. He is not enraged at her, though, just tearful and speechless. This may have been a blow to Byron’s pride and sense of self esteem, as the second affair was not just with anyone but with a man more famous and powerful than himself.
Romanticism — Byron was a Romantic poet, the Romantic movement of poetry ran in opposition to the general trend in society at the time, which was to repress emotions in order to seem strong and stable in character. Romantics felt that their society had far too many social structures that repressed the human soul and its capacity for joy and true spiritual enlightenment, and so they sought to explore complex emotions and feelings in their poems that were considered forbidden or frowned upon to display in society. With this in mind, we could say that the poem is a creative outlet for Byron’s repressed emotions and a way of him exploring and coming to terms with what he felt, as he was not able to do this socially.
One affair might be excusable, but multiple affairs with different people is tragic — though the woman has clearly transgressed by having an extramarital affair, if we read the poem autobiographically then we could say that Byron seems to have thought that there was something special and unique about their relationship and that they had a true connection. The news of her having a second affair with an even more famous and powerful man, however, alters his perception of her irrevocably — he responds with ‘shame’ to this news as he likely feels he was used by her or that she just enjoys toying with powerful men, instead of having a true and honest connection with them.
It can be painful to hear about those we care for moving on from a previous relationship — the speaker has had to repress his emotions for years after the relationship, never being able to tell anyone about the affair or to show his true feelings for the woman in public. For this reason, there’s a sense of catharsis in the poem from the speaker’s point of view, he is unable to speak to others directly about her so he finds a release in writing poetry that explores some of the difficult and complex emotions he has had to avoid dealing with or displaying outwardly.
Sometimes strong affection or attraction isn’t enough to sustain a relationship — the poem throws into light some of the complexities of relationships in the 19th Century — marriage, as shown by this woman, was not often for love but instead for social or financial reasons such as the preservation of wealth and the family name. We can clearly see that the woman is unhappy in her marriage, and this causes her to behave secretively, arguably she is a victim of society in a similar way to which the speaker feels he has been victimised by her love. They do seem to have had a genuine connection and made an impact on one another, but this love was not enough to counter the pressures of society.
- Society Vs. Privacy
- Attraction Vs. Repulsion
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